Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Conversation with Sherri Smith, Author of The Virgin's Tale

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A Conversation with Sherri Smith, Author of The Virgin's Tale

Canadian author Sherri Smith lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she teaches at a school for children with special needs. The Virgin’s Tale is her first novel.

Q: The Virgin’s Tale tells the story of Aemilia, a Vestal Virgin, and is set in Ancient Rome. What made you want to write about these women during this time period?

SS: The idea for the book originated while I was taking a summer course at the University of Winnipeg on ‘Magic in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece.’ I was drawn to the subject because there is little known about the Vestal Virgins though they were a long-standing state cult and I was curious what their day to day existence may have been like.

I was also fascinated with the state rituals and the manipulation of such state rituals according to political convenience and personal political ambitions. The last known Vestal Virgin to be put to death was under Domitian (AD 51-96), and one has to wonder, considering the punishment, what would drive a Virgin to act out against her imposed duties, if that was the case, or was she a scapegoat in one sense or another? I wanted to re-create a Virgin who would refuse and question her function even in the face of such punishment and repressive conditioning.

I was also interested in yet another way female fertility was feared, controlled/regulated and appropriated in history. My very first draft was in the form of an assignment. For the course’s final essay, I wanted to write on the Vestal Virgins as I was considering writing a short story about them. I had just read Christa Woolf’s Cassandra alongside Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad and also Aeschylus The Oresteia, the previous term for a Literature course and I very much enjoyed the way Cassandra provided an alternate female view of the ancient world.

When I mentioned wanting to write a short story to the professor, she suggested I write it in place of the essay. This greatly appealed to me, as I was not keen on the Latin footnoting required for the formal essay. I handed in a ten page story. I did not attempt to write again on it for a couple years, but when I did finally decide to write a ‘second’ draft, it took only two months. The re-writes of course, took a subsequent year. The reason the first draft took such a short time, is because I had a two month summer holiday off from working in the public school system. This was the first chunk of time I had free to completely immerse myself in the project, which I felt I needed in order to develop the necessary self-discipline for writing!

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book?

SS: My research was pretty typical, as in reading textbooks, articles, journals, writings by Cicero and his contemporaries, and luckily I was able to have lengthy discussions with my previous Classics professor who is now a close friend.

Q: Historical fiction, particularly historical romance, is a very popular genre these days. Why do you think that is?

SS: I really couldn’t say. Perhaps as life seems to become increasingly hectic regardless of (or due to, depending on opinion) modern conveniences readers may want to be further transported from their everyday surroundings and historical fiction offers this. Maybe some readers are simply attracted to learning about certain historical periods and consider it more accessible to do so through a fictional narrative. As for historical romance, I think contemporary romance stories would have to include contemporary technology in order to be authentic, and that could mean a lot of IM’s, text-messaging, e-mails, as a way to communicate romantic intentions and/ or conflict, and this might not always translate well into novel format. Though perhaps an epic love story, with a tragic ending told exclusively in the abbreviated form of exchanged text messages is just around the corner.

Q: What are you reading right now?

SS: I am still researching my next project and so that means I am reading a large stack of history books. I am also reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I just started it, but so far I am enjoying it immensely.

Q: Who are your favourite Canadian authors?

SS: Margaret Atwood is my absolute favourite writer, Canada and beyond! I also love the works by Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields and Mordecai Richler.

Q: What’s your next project?

SS: An epic love story with a tragic ending told exclusively in exchanged text messages… no, kidding of course-at least for now…it’s another historical novel. It is set in 17th century south-west Germany during the witch-hunts and centres on the unique role children had during the panics.




Read more about The Virgin's Tale by Sherri Smith at the Simon & Schuster website.


Interview and images courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

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